Winter leagues help LaHair stay focused

Winter leagues help LaHair stay focused

CINCINNATI -- Bryan LaHair gives a lot of credit for his approach at the plate to spending the offseason playing in winter leagues.

LaHair played in the Dominican Republic before the 2011 season, when he hit 38 homers at Triple-A Iowa to be named Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Coast League. He didn't go to the Dominican until December, which is after the season had begun.

"Down there, they throw the ball so hard, hard sliders," LaHair said. "Your bat speed is probably 85 [mph], and their pitch speed is 95 [mph]. It's way off."

But the Cubs' first baseman did well, batting around .300, which helped his confidence. He didn't hit for power, so the Dominican team sent him home.

"I was about 48 at-bats in and didn't have a home run," LaHair said. "I started feeling myself fouling balls back and hitting hard ground balls and thought, 'It's coming.' A lot of times, in winter ball, they don't get it. If you don't come in and do it right away, you've got no chance. Who knows? In my next 40-50 at-bats, I might have hit five or six home runs. This year in Venezuela, I went the whole month of November without a hit it seemed like, and they stuck with me."

LaHair followed his stellar season at Iowa last year with a trip to Venezuela, and he hit 15 home runs there. What the winter leagues did was re-enforce that he's not going to get any fastballs down the middle, so he had to make adjustments.

He also was motivated last year to do well.

"I just knew I had to go above and beyond," LaHair said. "I knew I had to stay locked in and have a good year. I felt it could've been my last year."

After all, LaHair had turned 29 in November 2011. He'd played nine seasons in the Minor Leagues. When would he get his chance?

"I felt I couldn't do any more, I couldn't work any harder," LaHair said. "That's a bad combination to have. You can't work any harder or work any more, and you're not getting a big league opportunity, then why am I playing and stressing my brain out every day over this game? Luckily, I have a good wife, good family, good support, and they kept pushing me."

It paid off, and he's now the everyday first baseman for the Cubs, leading the team in home runs and RBIs. Will he play winter ball this year?

"It's almost like I want to go for a month," LaHair said. "It gets me off the couch, keeps my weight down. Instead of five or six months [off], it's three months. That's a big thing."